This section presents an overview of the European water related policies, focusing on their main scope and reporting process. It introduces the state of European freshwater section, where the outcomes - when possible - of the policies’ assessments are described.

Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC)

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) was adopted in 2000 and covers surface waters: rivers, lakes, transitional, and coastal waters and groundwater. It establishes a framework for the assessment, management, protection and improvement of the status of surface and groundwater bodies within river basin districts, across the European Union. Achieving good status involves meeting standards for the ecology and chemistry for surface waters and chemistry and quantity of groundwaters. In general, good status means that water shows only a slight change from undisturbed conditions. There is also a general 'no deterioration' provision to prevent a decrease in status.
The Directive establishes an adaptive management approach that covers a six-year planning cycle, during which Member States prepare assessments of water body status and pressures and design programmes of measures to achieve good status of water by 2027 at the latest. River basin management plans were reported in 2010, 2016, and are curently at work for 2022.

Pollution under the WFD

The provisions in the WFD aimed at protecting surface and groundwaters from chemical pollution are pivotal. For surface waters, the EU has identified a list of priority substances, i.e. those of greatest concern. For these substances, EU Member States ensure that the Environmental Quality Standards (EQS) set in the Environmental Quality Standards Directive, are met in order to achieve good chemical status in accordance with WFD.  Measures must be taken to reduce the emissions, discharges and losses of the priority substances and to phase out those of the most harmful (the priority hazardous substances).
As part of the WFD, Member States also identify river basin specific pollutants which are substances of national or local concern. For these substances, they must also set and meet EQS for the river basin specific pollutants as a component of ecological status assessments.

The Groundwater Directive further establishes specific measures to prevent and control groundwater pollution and among others sets criteria for the assessment of good groundwater chemical status.

Bathing Water Directive (2006/7/EC)

The Bathing Water Directive (BWD) was adopted in 2006, updating the previous Directive from 1975 by simplifying the management and surveillance methods required. Its main objectives are to safeguard public health and protect the aquatic environment in coastal and inland areas from pollution. It requires Members States to monitor and assess the bathing water for at least two parameters of (faecal) bacteria. In addition, they must inform the public about bathing water quality and beach management, through bathing water profiles. This Directive is the primary data source to assess the inputs of microbial pathogens. 

Drinking Water Directive (2020/2184/EU)

The Drinking Water Directive concerns the quality of water intended for human consumption. Its objective is to protect human health from adverse effects of any contamination of water intended for human consumption by ensuring that it is wholesome and clean.

This policy ensures that water intended for human consumption can be consumed safely on a life-long basis, and this represents a high level of health protection. The main pillars of the policy are to:

    • protect human health by ensuring the quality of water intended for human consumption
    • ensure that drinking water quality is controlled through standards based on the latest scientific evidence
    • secure efficient and effective monitoring, assessment and enforcement of drinking water quality
    • provide Europeans with adequate, timely and appropriately information
    • and to improve access to water intended for human consumption

Floods Directive (2007/60/EC)

The Floods Directive was adopted in 2007. It aims to assess and manage flood risks, in order to reduce the adverse consequences for human health, environment, cultural heritage within river basin districts. As the Water Framework Directive, it establishes an adaptive management approach that covers a six-year planning cycle, during which Member States prepare assessments of flood risk through designation of areas of potential flood risk and assessments of risk, and identify measures to manage flood risk to be delivered or planned for at a local level. The flood risk management plans explain the risk of flooding from: rivers, the sea, surface water, groundwater, lakes, , and reservoirs, as well as flash floods and urban floods. They aim to manage the adverse consequences of flooding on human health, the environment, cultural heritage and economic activities.  Flood risk managment plans were published in 2016 and 2022.

Nitrates Directive (1991/676/EEC)

The Nitrates Directive aims to protect water quality across Europe by preventing nitrates from agricultural sources polluting ground and surface waters and by promoting the use of good farming practices.

The Nitrates Directive is an important instrument to achieve the objective of the Water Framework Directive of good chemical and ecological status of all water bodies by 2027 at the latest. The Directive sets out a number of steps to be fulfilled by Member States, notably: monitoring of all water body types; identification of waters that are polluted or at risk of pollution; designation of “Nitrate Vulnerable Zones"; and establishment of codes of good agricultural practices and national action programmes.

In line with the Nitrates Directive, Member States have to monitor the quality of the waters and to identify areas that drain into polluted waters or at risk of pollution. This includes waters that are eutrophic due to agricultural activities or contain or could contain a concentration of more than 50 mg/l of nitrates. Those areas are defined as “Nitrate Vulnerable Zones" (NVZs). Some Member States consider their whole territory as a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone. 

In these NVZs Member States have to establish Nitrate Action Programmes to reduce and prevent water pollution. These Action Programmes help to ensure that the right amount of nitrogen is applied to land at the right time and place via a number of measures, such as limiting the periods when fertilizers can be applied, putting in place requirements for storage of manure, conditions for fertilizer applications, and limits to the maximum amount of fertilizers to be used. In addition, with their Action Programmes Member States need to ensure that the amount of livestock manure applied to the land each year stays within the limits set by the Directive to avoid pollution. 

The National Action Programmes must be revised at least every four years, to update them in light of technological progress and the status of fresh- and groundwater. Additional measures may be required in light of the water quality data.

Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (1991/271/EEC)

The Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (UWWTD) was adopted in 1991. It deals with the collection, treatment and discharge of domestic waste water and waste water from certain industrial sectors, with the objective to protect the environment from the adverse effects of urban waste water discharges and discharges from certain industrial sectors. The Directive requires the collection and treatment of waste water in all urban settlements (called “agglomerations”) of population equivalents (p.e.) over 2,000, including tertiary treatment for agglomerations over 10,000 p.e. in designated Sensitive Areas and their catchments.

Water Reuse Regulation (2020/74/EU)

The Water Reuse Regulation on minimum requirements for water reuse for agricultural irrigation has entered into force. The new rules, applied from June 2023 are expected to stimulate and facilitate water reuse in the EU.

The Regulation sets out:

  • Harmonised minimum water quality requirements for the safe reuse of treated urban wastewaters in agricultural irrigation;
  • Harmonised minimum monitoring requirements, notably the frequency of monitoring for each quality parameter, and validation monitoring requirements;
  • Risk management provisions to assess and address potential additional health risks and possible environmental risks;
  • Permitting requirements;
  • Provisions on transparency, whereby key information about any water reuse project is made available to the public.

The new rules are to be situated in the context of the new Circular Economy Action Plan adopted in 2020, which includes the implementation of the new Regulation amongst Europe’s priorities for the circular economy. The Action Plan also announces that the Commission will facilitate water reuse and efficiency in other sectors, including in industrial processes.

Other legislations

Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008/56/EC) 

The Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) was adopted in 2008 and requires EU Member States to take measures to achieve and maintain Good Environmental Status (GES) in the marine environment by 2020. This is to be achieved by developing national marine strategies, following an ecosystem-based approach, which appliesy to all marine waters of the Member State. The strategies have to be coherent and coordinated across each MSFD marine region or subregion, which is mostly achieved through Regional Sea Conventions, or through bilateral processes. The strategies are developed in a step-wise approach and updated every six years. First Strategies were published in 2014, and updated in 2020.

Habitats (1992/43/EEC) and Birds (1979/409/EEC) Directives

The Habitats and Birds Directives (adopted in 1992 and 1979 respectively, the second updated in 2009) are Europe’s key legislation on nature conservation. While the Birds Directive protects all wild bird species in the European Union (including seabirds), the Habitats Directive lists a specific set of species and habitats of community importance that require protection and for which Member States should achieve a favourable conservation status. Member States have to identify sites of community importance due to the presence of Annex I habitats and Annex II species, which are later designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC). The SACs, together with the Special Protection Areas (SPAs) designated for the conservation of species under Annex I of the Birds Directive, constitute the Natura 2000 network, which is the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world.